Only a presidential veto--or a last-minute change of heart--could have stopped the Republican-led Congress from abolishing its only in-house source of science-policy analysis, the 23-year-old Office of Technology Assessment. But a threatened veto is now unlikely to come, and Congress has voted and moved on to other matters.
OTA is history.
On July 27, House and Senate conferees sealed the agency's fate in H.R. 104-212, the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill for fiscal 1996. It is a compromise measure that sets funding limits for Congress and its agencies, including the Library of Congress and the Congressional Budget Office. It is also the first such bill in nearly a quarter of a century to omit funding for OTA.
OTA director Roger Herdman calls the vote "unfortunate" for the agency, Congress, and the United States.
"In 1972," he observes, "when OTA was established, Congress understood that if it relied on the executive branch or the private sector it would get advice that would reflect the agendas of the executive branch or private agencies. I still don't think they're going to be able to get what OTA gave them in any other way than from OTA."
Herdman says that the committee provided OTA with $6 million--$3.6 million in new funds and $2.5 million in unspent 1995 funds--to complete ongoing studies and disseminate OTA reports through the Internet. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) has agreed to provide computer support for that effort, Herdman confirms.
"There's tons of work to do to assure that the finances are closed out properly and to make sure that the physical and intellectual property of OTA is handled appropriately," he adds.
Maneuvers Unlikely To Succeed Although the House had voted in June to spare the tiny, 147-member agency--trimming its $22 million budget to $15 million and moving its functions into the Congressional Research Service--the Senate rejected the House vote on July 20, voting to kill it in their own legislative appropriations bill. One week later, when a committee drawn from members of the two chambers met to hammer out a compromise on the spending bill, the anti-OTA forces again had more votes.
CLOSING SHOP: Director Roger C. Herdman calls the vote "unfortunate".
Despite the seemingly overwhelming opposition, several OTA advocates in the House--Reps. Vic Fazio (D.-Calif.), George E. Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.), John Dingell, (D-Mich.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), and Amo Houghton (R-N.Y.)--have contemplated urging their House colleagues to pass an amendment forcing the House-Senate conference committee to reconvene and reconsider its decision to jettison OTA.
But Houghton acknowledges that the procedural maneuver is unlikely to bear fruit in a chamber that initially voted to abolish OTA and then half-heartedly voted to spare the agency (S. Sternberg, The Scientist, July 24, 1995, page 1).
"It's sort of a last gasp," he explains. "It's got about a one in 50 chance of succeeding." Such a maneuver could prolong OTA's crisis further into this month, after Congress returns from its August recess.
Only President Clinton can delay OTA's demise, by vetoing the appropriations bill, which has not yet reached his desk. But OTA officials say even a presidential veto is unlikely to resurrect the agency.
The president did not base a threatened veto of the bill on the proposed abolition of OTA. White House officials note that Clinton is loath to tell Congress how much money it needs and what to spend the money on. Instead, Clinton has excoriated Congress for putting its own allowance before "the people's business," another matter entirely.
Brown, ranking minority member of the House science committee, says the decision to eliminate OTA reflects Congress's overt hostility to the very technology that House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) touts as America's ticket to success in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
Brown contends the Republican-led Congress is "willing to wack any program no matter how good it is to meet their budget goals. It just turned out that OTA is caught up in this as one of the victims. They couldn't get rid of the General Accounting Office or the Library of Congress. They're too big. So they picked on OTA to be the sacrificial lamb, even though the agency had bipartisan support."
Brown also predicts that Congress will find it cannot proceed without scientific guidance of some kind, and that, in a year or two, members would vote to fund another body, perhaps NAS, to take over where OTA left off.
White House science adviser John Gibbons could not be reached for comment on the OTA decision. But he told a policy colloquium held in April by the American Association for the Advancement of Science that, "at times, this Congress seems to run screaming from anything that looks like research or credible data--even pushing to eliminate the only bipartisan and bicameral congressional resource for science and technology analysis, the Office of Technology Assessment."
Skip Johns, associate director for technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spent 18 years at OTA, starting the agency's energy research program and helping to prepare 140 OTA reports.
Johns blasts Congress for what he calls "one of the most shortsighted acts that Congress has performed in my memory.
"The number of times that OTA has paid for itself in good advice to the Congress over the years is beyond counting," he points out. "This is the worst sort of accounting. It implies that the answers to the complex technical questions that are embedded in much of the legislative decision-making today have been answered and Congress doesn't need any help in that regard."
He cites the synfuels legislation of the 1980s, an effort to promote the development of energy-saving fuels, as an example of OTA's cost-effectiveness. When the legislation was introduced, he recounts, lawmakers envisioned an extensive program costing $64 billion. OTA testified that Congress was about to create a "white elephant" of immense proportions. Based in large measure on OTA's testimony, Congress cut back the appropriation's request to $8 billion and mandated strict oversight of how the money was spent.
Daryl Chubin, a former OTA study supervisor who is now division director for research, evaluation, and dissemination at the National Science Foundation, calls the conferees' decision to abolish the agency a "tragedy" and an "outrage."
"Congress will soon realize the error of its ways," he warns, when it finds itself mired in a high-tech policy debate without OTA's guidance.
WARNING: Rep. George E. Brown, Jr. predicts Congress will miss OTA's guidance.
Jean McDonald, an OTA spokeswoman, says the agency's prolonged death throes were agony for the staff: "We've been hanging here for nine months now. People haven't known what to do--whether to stick around or get another job. We had a warning nine months ago, and then we had to sit here and watch how the whole thing played out. The same game is going on in a lot of places in Washington."
Steve Sternberg is a freelance science writer based in Alexandria, Va.
- (The Scientist, Vol:9, #17, pg.1,11 , September 4, 1995)
- (Copyright © The Scientist, Inc.)